Machines In The Hand Tool Workshop

by | Mar 7, 2013 | 14 comments

I often feel like I’m fighting the corner for Hand Tools and yet within my day to day work I have a number of machines that I have to rely upon. The machines are there because the work I do is big and the amount of timber I process is large – hand preparing every board for every workbench would be impractical. When I talk about having a passion for hand tool woodworking it doesn’t mean that I want to abolish machinery altogether, I really do appreciate them. But I know if my job was solely to build furniture then I would be more than happy to live without them.

I have a confession; I’ve always been a hand tool chap since I was very little watching my Granddad work but there was a time when I loved to watch Norm on the TV. As far as influences go I think Norm must have had a huge impact at getting many people interested in woodwork which is brilliant. But the trouble was I was still learning and felt that if I could have a set up like Norm’s then everything would go like clockwork. I desired for machines for a while and spent most of that time feeling deflated that I had no money to even scratch the surface and I certainly didn’t have enough space. It wasn’t until I struggled on without the ‘perfect’ set up that something clicked, I didn’t enjoy the noise or dust created by the cheap machines that I’d acquired and most of my time was being spent either setting up a machine or scratching my head trying to work out what had broken now. By contrast every bit of work I did by hand brought satisfaction, a sense of achievement. My love of woodwork was rekindled and very quickly I was stripping things right back to basics, studying age old techniques and creating my own through trial and error.

I’ve been a hand tool fanatic ever since but would never dispute that machines are necessary. A great majority of woodworkers are keen hobbyists rather than professional and in the UK especially this means space can be tight. With any hobby we do it for enjoyment, it may be for relaxation or an ambition to keep learning but one thing we don’t need is unnecessary frustration.

Our Wadkin Lineshaft Bandsaw when it was back in Kent. Can’t wait to fire this one up!

 With a small garage you may have the space for a couple of small machines and I feel the right ones can make good companions to the hand tool woodworker. I know I’d stick to being hand tool only but a small bandsaw and planer-thicknesser would cut out a lot of the graft and repetition. The bandsaw comes in to quickly makes rips and is useful for awkward curves and the planer is obvious. When time is scarce and you have a big project on the go you may have more fun if you can move on to the more varied activities. I’d definitely encourage practicing your hand techniques on small projects but on something large like a wardrobe then you might want to hog the crap away!

I tend to see machines as roughing tools within the hand tool workshop so they’re there to get rid of the bulk of waste. To use machines for finer work and joinery takes a different approach so I would rarely see any need for something like a table saw with the way that I like to work.

I find the efficiency with hand tools comes with the right approach and so that’ll be a follow up post for next week.

Related Posts

About Richard Maguire

About Richard Maguire

As a professional hand tool woodworker, Richard found hand tools to be the far more efficient solution for a one man workshop. Richard runs 'The English Woodworker' as an online resource and video education for those looking for a fuss free approach to building fine furniture by hand. Learn More About Richard & The English Woodworker.


  1. dick schultschik

    always great comments, i too went thru the “Norm” phase but now prefer the quieter approach. I will keep my bandsaw, but will try to develope my handtool skills for most everything else.
    Best regards,
    Cedar Rapids, Iowa, usa

    • Richard

      Thanks Dick, there’s no harm in a bit of Norm! The bandsaw would always be my first choice, a good one is very versatile and the beauty is they take up so little space.

  2. Ken

    Richard………I do agree, I work from home, noise is a concern for me. For example I chop out all my mortices by hand, a morticing machine would be much quieter, but so far I have had no complaints.

    A band saw would be a great help, even more so when you need 1/2″ stock. I was thinking of investing in a thicknesser. hand plane one face flat, take of the bulk with the thicknesser and finish with a hand plane.

    So yes a few machines can complement hand tool work, and I think I would use hand tools most of the time, simply because thats the way I like to work wood. 😉

    • Richard

      That’s a good point. Noise can clearly affect others even if we don’t mind it ourselves so this may restrict heavy machine use. Like you say a morticing machine seems to be the exception though!
      The good thing about a stand alone thicknesser rather than a combination is they can be very compact and lightweight.

  3. Rob

    It strikes me you have the balance of machinery and hand tools spot on for your line of work Richard. Vintage machinery has a beauty and quality of operation unmatched by the modern gear I’ve seen – good for you in bringing it back to life.

    • Richard

      Thanks Rob, I don’t think many modern machines can touch on the quality of some good old cast iron. We’ve a long way to go before that lovely bandsaw’s back whirling but it’ll certainly be worth it.

  4. Paul Chapman

    A bandsaw and a lathe are my only two machines – the rest I do by hand.

    • Richard

      A lathe’s another good staple, it didn’t even cross my mind to mention it but if you do a lot of turning then it’s pretty essential. The beauty of a lathe is you can easily make one that’s human powered.

  5. ScottV

    We’re on the same wavelength. The bandsaw and a small inca jointer/planer are the only machines I employ. Good companions. For me it seems like a perfect fit for my small garage shop.

    • Richard

      Thanks Scott, it’s good to hear there’s so many of us with this in common. Less space generally forces us to become more efficient but we see so many small garage workshops crammed up with so much equipment it looks like there’s barely room to move!

      • Brian Johnston

        That sounds like my garage. However I’ve lately come to the conclusion that unless you are doing a lot of repetitive work, it is quicker to do them by hand than to faff around setting up the necessary machines to cut a couple of joints!
        Watch the New Yankee Workshop and you’ll never see Norm setting up his machinery. A plunge router in a table is a real nuisance to set accurately to depth if you don’t have a router lift.
        The other problem with the many small machines approach is that they can only manage small work-pieces. I recently had to build a five-bar gate, but the only machine I used was a sliding mitre saw on its stand to trim the rails to length and cut the tenon shoulders. There was no question of rounding the tops of 4 foot long 4×2 stiles on my little bandsaw!
        I’m moving house soon, and may end up with an even smaller workshop, so I’ll have to think out my machinery usage very carefully

  6. Rob Porcaro


    Good discussion. Thanks. I think of it as a trip: a jet flies you to a place to visit, but later you walk around to fully appreciate it. Machines give me the time to add the quality personal touches to my work using hand tools.

    I’ve long suggested that a portable thickness planer is the first machine most small-shop woodworkers ought to acquire, followed by a high quality bandsaw. Both machines occupy minimal space in the shop, and, in fact, the two may be all you ever need (if you don’t do lathe work). The reasoning for this suggestion is found on my site.

    I refer to the bandsaw as “the hand tool with a motor.”


  7. Mark

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I started my woodworking journey in the early ’70’s. As a youngster I spent a lot of time with our next door neighbour (the village carpenter, undertaker, wheelwright etc) “helping” with all sorts of projects. Because of my youth I wasn’t allowed to use the machines. My mentor used to tell me that when he started only very large firms had machinery, everything he did was by hand. That’s the way he taught me, as much to appreciate the process as anything else. The last project I made in that shop was a WBC bee hive for the swarm that my old friend had given me. Sadly this was the last time we worked together.
    In the following years I had little time for wood (unless it was barrel shaped and full of Beer). When I did re-kindle my interest, I became seduced by the machinery available at such ‘reasonable’ prices. After a frustating time with this ‘crap’ I ended up with a few real quality ‘old iron’items that I loved. But I never felt the same pride in my projects that I remembered. They just wern’t up to scratch. I watched Norm, it was easy to do great work so long as you’ve got lots of machines. So why couldn’t I produce items of the same quality as I used to. Perhaps I wasn’t as good as I thought I was! Yeh, that must be it.
    Well, I still haven’t improved much. Then, a little while ago I had to move into a MUCH smaller workshop (15ft by 7ft). I couldn’t get my machines in there let alone work on them. I sold my machines and bought a Shopsmith (no more will be said on that).
    I then bumped into my old friends son, we exchanged pleasntaries and parted. This short meeting sent my mind back to those early days working with hand tools. Thats when I started searching for info on benches (hello Richard). Suddenly I’m not on my own. There’s other numpty’s out there chopping out mortices, ripping 8ft boards with a panel saw, and loving it.
    I’ve gone on far to long, sorry. Just to round off I must say I agree with others here. If I can find room I will get a good bandsaw and a bench top planer.
    Looking forward to the videos, I still need a few pointers to get back to where is used to be.;)
    Regards, Mark.

  8. Anne Adeke

    How I wish I could get several of the tool kits for my students after graduation from the institute. They need tool boxes for carpentry, electrical engineering, , mechanical engineering,plumbing, baking and cokery, juice procesding, and designing textiles this will be needed in large numbers for practical and eventusl use. In the field


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Updates:

Related Posts:

Simple Work Holding For Ploughing Grooves [Without a Tail Vice]

Sometimes the biggest challenge of a project can just be getting the wood to stay put while we try to work on it. I suppose it's why it's so easy for us to get lost in the hunt for a perfect workbench design. And drawn in towards all kinds of vice bling and fancy work...

Hand Tools Make Machines Cheap

As you know, to become fast with hand tools you have to understand that perfection isn’t a thing. You need to learn where the inaccuracy can be hidden, and deliberately place it there. A good example of this, were those table legs in the hall table build. Getting them...

The Perfect Hand Tool Workshop

Sadly I ain't one of those that can say he’s been in a generations old workshop all of his working life. There aren't tools still hung on the wall that my grandad put up, or boxes full of secrets who's keys were lost lifetimes ago. Instead I seem to move workshop like...

We Teach Online

Practical Hand Tool Education

Watch immediately on PC, tablet or mobile

Browse All Projects